Mourning and Organizing

The story has been told, and told, and told again.  A century ago this week, on March 25th, 2011, more than 500 sewing machine operators, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, were working on the 9th floor of the Asch building in New York City, near Washington Square Park.. A fire started on the eighth floor.  By the time the fire reached the 9th floor some workers were able to make it out using the building’s one elevator, while others escaped via one of the building’s stairwells before it collapsed under the weight of hundreds of panicked workers.  But the 9th floor workers who were left behind discovered that the door leading to the Washington Square stairway was locked—a common practice, designed to keep the young seamstresses from stealing factory goods or taking unauthorized breaks.  Trapped in the fire, many workers died in the flames; still others jumped from the 9th floor and died from their injuries.

146 workers died, most of them Jewish and Italian women in their teens and twenties. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, 400,000 New Yorkers, 10% of the city’s residents, assembled to watch the workers’ funeral procession, which took place in a pelting rainstorm.  Moreover, after the fire, city and state representatives went on to pass more than 30 pieces of labor and safety legislation—legislation that could have prevented the Triangle Factory Fire if it had been in place and enforced that day.

As we approach the centennial of the Triangle fire this Friday, the work of hundreds of artists, filmmakers, activists, and historians of the last few years is culminating in a flurry of cultural documents and events.  PBS produced a stunning documentary about the fire that can be seen on their website, and HBO’s documentary, which is also very good, airs on the cable channel this week (beginning March 21).  An entire organization has been created to commemorate the day, the Coalition to Remember the Triangle Fire, which is sponsored by City Lore, a New York City organization that helps to preserve New York’s “living cultural heritage.”

The story of the Triangle Factory Fire itself is so grisly that it is easy to get drawn into the pathos of the story—to be swept away by grief and even a sense of helplessness.  The girls were so young, so vulnerable;  their bosses were so cruel, so profit driven.  And American society, before the accident, was so unfeeling, so ignorant, and so unwilling to regulate the garment industry until it was too late—at least for those 146 workers.

But there are three concrete lessons to take away from this week’s many commemorations—lessons that acknowledge the tragedy of the Triangle Factory Fire, but that give us something to think about, and, perhaps, more importantly, something to do.

The first lesson is a familiar one;  don’t mourn, organize.  If that sounds a little cold, let me explain.  The PBS documentary, Triangle Fire, shows that the fire followed on the heels of two years of concerted union organizing in sweatshops across the city.  The owners of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory were particularly stubborn in their refusal to negotiate with the nascent garment workers union, even though some of the most militant union members were drawn from the Triangle Factory workforce.  The PBS film draws heavily on the work of David Von Drehle, now a Time magazine editor, who wrote Triangle Fire:  the Fire that Changed America in 2003.  In a recent interview he argued that we should not see the post-fire reforms as merely the emotional response of a city to the tragedy of the dead girls:

The reason reform happened was because those workers and their colleagues in the New York factories had begun organizing and had begun voting. They had organized an enormous strike in 1909-1910 and were forming coalitions with wealthy progressive leaders…The way change happens is not by having the best idea or by making the most emotional appeal. The way lasting change happens is by winning the attention of the vote-counting politicians, working the system.  Or as Mother Jones said, organize organize, organize.

The second lesson is related to the first: organize the mourning.  While Drehle is correct that the reforms were won as much by the 1909 picket lines as they were by the fire, the labor movement has kept the memory of the fire alive these last 100 years in order that US labor law not be dragged back to those darker times.  The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) especially, founded in 1900, has masterfully retold many elements of its dramatic history, including the Triangle fire, in stories, songs, films, art exhibits, photographs, printed material, and now in digital forms at the Kheel Center, where the bulk of the unions’ archives are housed.

In 1950 the ILGWU produced With These Hands, a feature film telling the story of the union’s first 50 years.  The film included the narrative of the great 1909 uprising, as well as the Triangle fire.  While some see the film as marred by its amateur production values and its Cold War rebuke of Communism, the film is still a remarkable effort, one of the only successful films of its kind made in the immediate postwar era.  It debuted to great fanfare (though admittedly lukewarm reviews) in 1950 but was then copied and used by ILGWU locals around the country.  After its production, the ILGWU stepped up its use of 16mm film as an organizing and recruiting tool.

Throughout the 1950s the ILGWU continued to produce union culture that was written by and for union members.  The Northeast division wrote a musical history of the union, My Name is Mary Brown, which was also turned into a booklet and a short film.  The ILGWU also produced a bi-weekly newspaper, Justice, which covered national labor news as well as the news of the union; the Triangle fire was frequently commemorated in its pages.  In the 1960s, the union also won PR awards for its use of its photography archive from the early 20th century to show its members, and the nation, what turn-of-the-century sweatshops looked like.

From the end of World War II to the 1970s, the ILGWU union lost US garment jobs as well as prestige;  the union organized sweatshop workers in Puerto Rico, but eventually lost the bulk of its members’ jobs to global capitalism.  Nonetheless, reorganized as UNITE in the 1990s, the garment workers union continued to commemorate, its history.  Today UNITE pays the salary of a researcher who is working to re-catalog and digitize hundreds of linear feet of ILGWU archives at Cornell University’s Kheel Center, bringing some of these centuries old materials into the digital age.

The third lesson is:  mourn the recent past, too.  If we want to follow the example set by the ILGWU, we have our work cut out for us.  According to a 2010 AFL-CIO report there were 5,214 workers killed on the job in the US in 2008 alone.  An estimated additional 50,000 workers died that year of work-related illnesses.  4.6 million injuries were reported in 2008;  however the AFL-CIO estimates that the real number of on-the-job injuries was between 9 million and 14 million.

So this Friday, March 25th, at 4:45 PM, as bells ring out throughout New York City to correspond with the time that the fire alarm first sounded one hundred years ago, I’d like us to ask ourselves:  what are we doing to commemorate these more proximate tragedies?  What are we doing to protect the vulnerable workers of today?  And whom can we organize so that we don’t have to mourn—so frequently and so profoundly—one hundred years hence?

Kathy M. Newman

The War on the Working Class

For the last month, the attacks by Republican governors and state legislators on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere have dominated national news.  The target is not just these unions but on the labor movement in general.  But state bills barring or restricting collective bargaining are just one battlefront in a growing war on the working class – a war that will have consequences for the middle class, as well.

Of course, this isn’t a new war.  Unions and the working class have been under assault since the 1970s, when companies closing plants in places like Youngstown explained their abandonment of American industrial communities as “economic necessity” because American workers were too expensive.  In the 80s, Ronald Reagan led one of the first governmental battles when he fired air traffic controllers in the PATCO strike.  During the 90s, labor regulations made organizing unions increasingly difficult, and employers began to rely more on contingent and part-time workers and to outsource even supposedly secure middle-class jobs. At the same time, deregulation and tax policies helped income inequality grow ever larger as programs to aid the poor were dismantled – by a Democratic president, no less.  Business practices encouraged lowering wages and reducing benefits – moves that many workers, including those in unions, accepted out of fear of losing their jobs altogether.  During the economic crisis of the last two years, hundreds of thousands of workers have lost jobs while corporations stockpile some of the largest cash reserves in history.  Think we’re exaggerating?  Billionaire Warren Buffet doesn’t think so.  He’s said that there is a class war going on in America and that his side is winning.

Despite Federal investigations that clearly lay the blame for the economic crisis at the foot of banks and the finance industry, the working class has become a scapegoat for the country’s economic and social problems.  Like commentators once said of Reagan, business and finance interests seem to be coated with Teflon.  Overwhelming evidence of their responsibility for the financial crisis slides right off.  Former Lehman Brothers exec John Kasich blames public workers, not the financial industry, for Ohio’s crisis, while in Wisconsin, the Koch Brothers are funding Scott Walker’s effort to blame workers for a budget shortfall that he just increased with yet another big tax cut.

Until recently, the attack was largely cultural as journalists, politicians, and commentators focused on exaggerated versions of working-class culture as the source of a variety of social ills.  During the 2008 election, we were told repeatedly that the working class was too racist to vote for Obama, and that claim of rampant racism was all too easy to reprise as the Tea Party started disrupting town hall meetings about health care.  Those ideas held even as Obama won the election and research showed that most Tea Party members were not working-class.  We hear it in the debate over education: if only poor and working-class parents spent more time reading to their kids, we would be more competitive against those well-educated Chinese.  And now it’s about the economy: if only those greedy public workers would stop insisting on getting affordable health insurance and reliable pensions, the rest of us could pay lower taxes and businesses would like us better – maybe they’d even bring jobs back to Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Indiana, or Michigan.

As states and the U.S. Congress are formulating budget bills, the attack is ramping up, and the ground is shifting.  It’s no longer enough to misrepresent or denigrate the working class.  In order to balance budgets that have been seriously skewed (or screwed) by huge tax cuts, mostly to the wealthy, our leaders say we need to cut services.  States are cutting back on health care programs for the poor, slashing funding for education (Walker’s budget for Wisconsin cuts $834 million from K-12 schools), and raising user fees on things like car registration and college tuition – regressive funding strategies that take a much larger bite out of the household budget of poorer families than of wealthier ones.  The budget bill passed by House Republicans cut funding for health care for poor women and reduced funding of Pell Grants, and Obama joined the fight by cutting heating assistance to the poor.

With these moves, the war has shifted from rhetoric to daily reality.  The result will be ugly.  Cuts in education at all levels will reduce both the quality and accessibility of education.   Cuts in health care will increase incidents of medical problems and could increase the birthrate among lower-income women who would no longer have easy access to the most reliable forms of birth control.  The attacks on public unions will lead to an immediate decline in household income for thousands of families and, in the longer term, less secure retirements.  Increasingly, older people will struggle to get by on reduced pensions.  The result will be increasing demand for state services such as Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs, as well as increases in homelessness.

Meanwhile, the working class and the middle class are losing their voice in the democratic process.  That’s true in the workplace, where both unionized and non-union workers have fewer opportunities to help shape working conditions and both feel increasingly vulnerable to being fired on a boss’s whim.  And it’s true in electoral politics, where the primary national organized voice for the poor, working-class, and middle-class, the labor movement, will lose political influence as unions lose the ability to protect workers’ rights.

No one knows yet exactly how the majority of Americans, who support collective bargaining for public sector workers and who view governors like Walker and Kasich negatively, will respond when these bills finally pass and take effect, or when state and federal budgets undermine opportunity for those who already have fewer resources and options.  Will Americans stand together to protest, as so many have done in Madison and Columbus, and if so, will those protests be any more effective in changing policy than what we’ve been seeing?  What will it take to get us to stand up for social and economic justice, not only for teachers and firefighters but for everyone in the working class and the middle class?  To move us to demand the reinstatement of the American dream? How much will we take before we engage fully in the class war?  The time is now.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies